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Stacey Abrams Challenges the Pro-Democracy Left
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Stacey Abrams Challenges the Pro-Democracy Left

The Democratic Party’s most prominent election denier deserves to lose.

Stacey Abrams. (Photo by Aaron J. Thornton/WireImage/Getty Images.)

When should a candidate be disqualified from public office? I don’t mean as a legal matter, but as a matter of character. I don’t pretend the answer is easy. I definitely have my own lines—lines that Donald Trump clearly crossed, as did Roy Moore, and now Herschel Walker. If there’s strong evidence you’ve committed acts of domestic violence, abused or harassed women, or paid for an abortion, you’re not getting my vote. This is a low bar. It’s not too much to ask that American politics be cleansed of abusers and harassers.

Here’s another low bar. American politics should be purged of election deniers. If we learned anything on January 6, we learned that there is a cohort of Americans for whom stolen election claims are no game. They’ll believe that democracy itself is under attack, and they’ll take action. To this day I shudder to think what would have happened if Mike Pence had said yes to Donald Trump. That simple action could have precipitated the greatest constitutional and political crisis since 1861.

So I’ve added to my list. I won’t vote for or support abusers, harassers, or election deniers. I don’t care who they’re running against. I’ll sit out the election. I’ll write in. 

When it comes to Donald Trump and his allies, my friends on the left (and a few on the right) cheer this stance. Democracy is at stake, they argue, and I agree completely. Election challenges could break America, they fear, and I share their concerns.

Now let’s talk about Stacey Abrams. Her continued viability in Georgia and American politics is living proof that a true pro-democracy movement will always face partisan challenges. It is always easier to ask the other side to make sacrifices. But when it comes time to make your own sacrifice to preserve trust and faith in American elections? Well, then partisans draw distinctions. “Our election denial is different,” they say, and they defend the indefensible. 

Here’s a distinction I agree with: Stacey Abrams’ election denial was less dangerous than Trump’s. She didn’t inspire a violent attack on the Georgia Capitol. Stolen-election claims in governor’s races are less dangerous than comparable claims in presidential elections. All true. 

Yet we cannot paper over the reality that Abrams is the highest-profile and most relentless election denier in today’s Democratic Party. She refused to concede her race. She has denied she lost and denied the Georgia election was “free and fair” again and again and again. She has rallied leading Democrats to join her cause.

Elizabeth Warren, for example, blamed Abrams’ loss on “massive voter suppression.” Hillary Clinton said that if Abrams “had a fair election, she already would have won.” Cory Booker and Sherrod Brown said her election was “stolen.”

Abrams now claims she never contested the outcome, only the process. Earlier this month she told CNN’s Erin Burnett, “I have never denied the outcome. I have always questioned the process and the access. And I think it’s dangerous and disingenuous to conflate concerns about access and concerns about outcome.”

Yet she has flatly said “we won,” and has repeatedly denied that the election was “free and fair.” If that isn’t undermining the legitimacy of an election, I don’t know what is. 

Moreover, Abrams’ substantive claims were specious from the start. Yes, she was running against Georgia’s then-secretary of state, Brian Kemp, and yes Kemp’s office did follow state laws that, for example, required the state to remove voters from the rolls if they hadn’t had any contact with the electoral system in three years and didn’t respond within 30 days to a mailed notice (even if purged, they could re-register online). 

But as I wrote immediately after the Georgia election, if Kemp is a vote suppressor, he’s the least effective vote suppressor alive. Here are the raw numbers:

Turnout in Georgia was immense. In the previous gubernatorial election, Republican Nathan Deal won with 1.3 million votes. In November, Abrams lost with 1.9 million votes. There were roughly 2.5 million total votes cast in 2014. In 2018, more than 3.9 million Georgians voted. That almost matches the total votes cast for president in 2016.

According to FiveThirtyEight, 55 percent of eligible Georgians voted, a whopping 21-point increase over the 1982–2014 midterm average. Moreover, according to preliminary exit polls, a record-high 40 percent of Georgia’s electorate was nonwhite. Georgia’s 55 percent turnout exceeded the national average of 47 percent.

Abrams’ argument for vote suppression thus had to rest on the claim that turnout would have been even higher (and substantially so) had Kemp not taken action. She lost by more than 50,000 votes, a margin far larger than Trump’s roughly 11,000-vote loss in Georgia in 2020. 

And while Abrams’ argument strained credulity when it was first made, it now has no credibility whatsoever. How do we know this? Because her claims were litigated and rejected in federal court. Federal district court judge Steve Jones—an Obama appointee—conducted a 21-day trial on election challenges brought by a group called Fair Fight Action, heard from 50 witnesses, and wrote a thorough, 288-page opinion

His conclusion? “Although Georgia’s election system is not perfect, the challenged practices violate neither the constitution nor the [Voting Rights Act].” Trying to briefly summarize such a lengthy ruling is like trying to summarize a novel in a few paragraphs, but the bottom line is Judge Jones looked at all of the key claims of voters suppression, including challenges to poll worker training, so-called “exact match” requirements that checked voter registration data against other state databases, and claims of mismanagement of the state’s voter rolls.

Fair Fight Action not only couldn’t establish that Georgia’s practices violated state law, it had trouble even finding people who couldn’t vote. As National Review’s editors pointed out in their own piece on the ruling, the plaintiffs presented seven voters “who experienced difficulty with in-person absentee ballot cancellations,” but six actually voted, and the one who couldn’t vote was mainly stopped by a scheduling issue with her nursing facility and not by Georgia law. 

Moreover, the court noted that there was no “direct evidence of a voter who was unable to vote, experienced longer wait times, was confused about voter registration status by being in MIDR [active-missing identification requirement] status, or experienced heightened scrutiny at the polls.”

Again, this is in an election where Abrams lost by more than 50,000 votes. 

I completely understand Democratic excitement around Stacey Abrams. She’s a talented politician who almost turned Georgia blue before the 2020 election. Smart observers credit her with providing the inspiration and organization that helped Biden win the Georgia presidential election and helped Georgia send two Democrats to the United States Senate. 

But I’ll remind my friends on the left of the message they’ve been sending the right. Political ends do not justify anti-democratic means. Abrams’ conduct was inexcusably Trumpian. She immediately challenged election results without any evidence sufficient to justify her claims, and she repeatedly maintained that she won in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Yet she was not just a rising Democratic star before the election, she maintained her star status throughout her election challenge, and she skated to the Democratic nomination for governor again in 2022.

I’m having a hard time seeing the Democratic Party’s excuse for such undemocratic behavior.

One key challenge to the defense of democracy is that a true commitment to democracy often clashes with our immediate self-interest and our passionate beliefs. Democrats and Republicans belong to their tribes for complex reasons, but every partisan ultimately believes that their policy ideas are better for the country they love and their politicians will govern the country better than the opposition. 

A  commitment to democracy, by contrast, asks us to sometimes consent to a loss, to agree that the other party will lead. The greater our partisan fear and animosity, however, the more we will try to find any way and every way possible to prevent our state or our nation from falling into “enemy” hands. As that partisan fear and animosity grows, we’re more willing to believe the worst about our political opponents, including claims that they’ll cheat their way to a win.

Perversely enough, few things increase partisan fear and animosity more than a refusal to recognize election results. We’re in the grips of a vicious cycle. The more we hate our opponents, the less we’re willing to believe they can or should win, and the more we challenge their victories, the more we make our opponents hate us. 

Through a strange twist of fate, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp is on the verge of providing American democracy a double public service. He has already confronted and defeated the nation’s most anti-democratic Republican. He refused Trump’s demands that he intervene to overturn Georgia’s presidential election results, and he crushed Trump’s hand-picked challenger in the GOP gubernatorial primary. He gave Republicans a glimpse at a post-Trump future.

Now he’s confronting the nation’s leading anti-democratic Democrat. If he wins (and he’s likely to prevail) America’s democracy movement should cheer the outcome. And if Abrams loses, the message to her from Democrats should be clear—no more conspiracies. No more election denial. She should have no future in party politics until she decisively repudiates her anti-democratic past. 

One more thing …

Readers, you dodged a bullet. This newsletter almost wasn’t about democracy. It was almost a 2,000 word essay in defense of Amazon’s Rings of Power, a series that I enjoyed immensely, from the start to the finish of the first season. It was beautifully shot, true to Tolkien’s ethos, and there were moments that were both moving and chilling. 

Rather than throwing my nerdery straight into your inbox, I put out a Twitter thread instead. For the nine of you on this list who care as passionately about Tolkien as I do, here it is:

Please give it a read, and give me your thoughts in the comments. I’m traveling today, but I’ll do my best to dive in and respond. 

*Correction, October 18: This newsletter originally misspelled Cory Booker’s first name.

One last thing …

It’s the most glorious time of the year—NBA basketball season. And for those who are new to The Dispatch, there’s one thing you need to know about this newsletter, it doubles as a Memphis Grizzlies fan page and Ja Morant highlight reel. So to get you ready for greatness, here’s a sampling of Ja at his best. Enjoy:

David French is a columnist for the New York Times. He’s a former senior editor of The Dispatch. He’s the author most recently of Divided We Fall: America's Secession Threat and How to Restore Our Nation.